It's the only good bit in the whole thing

Is it my imagination or is the composer anniversary bandwagon finally running out of steam? Today is the 150th anniversary of Richard Strauss' birth. But where is the wall to wall Strauss on BBC Radio 3, and where are the Richard and Pauline cufflinks and Rosenkavalier iPhone covers? But the purpose of this post is not to wallow in schadenfreude. It is to draw attention to one of the more imaginative examples of anniversary programming - the recently released CD of Elgar's Second Symphony by the Staatskapelle Berlin conducted by Daniel Barenboim. There were, of course, close links between Elgar and Richard Strauss, and if this acclaimed recording* gives Elgar's masterpiece the audience it deserves outside Britain, I will happily put my dislike of composer anniversaries on hold. Making the connection with Elgar is a positive way to exploit the Strauss anniversary. Let's hope similar imaginative thinking will result in a reassessment of the writings of Herman Hesse - whose poetry is set in the Four Last Songs, and of Zarathustra - whose philosophy is misrepresented by Nietzsche. And talking of Nietzsche and Zarathustra, the soundtrack for 2014 looks certain to be Also sprach Zarathustra. So, in the spirit of anniversary reassessment, I offer this passage from Paul Kriwaczek's book In Search of Zarathustra, which was published in 2002. But please don't shoot the messenger.
I was working on a series of television programmes about the history of music with a young conductor new to the orchestral scene. She wanted to start with something both spectacular and familiar and chose the opening of Richard Strauss's tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra. believing it would be known to the audience from Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Our orchestra had 112 players - and a huge pipe organ; she wanted to point out the sheer excitement of hearing 'all those musicians playing something at the same time'. I asked her how much of the piece she would get the orchestra to perform. 'Oh, just the well-known beginning', she said, perhaps a little ungraciously. 'It's the only good bit in the whole thing.'
* I don't want to be a party pooper. But the Decca CD/download is just Elgar's Second Symphony, which at little more than fifty minutes is the duration of a rock and not classical release. Could not Barenboim and his Berlin band have also included In the South (Alassio) on the disc? Plot of Zarathustra is from SoundCloud. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use", for the purpose of critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.


Pliable said…
Thought provoking comment - as ever - from Richard Bratby on Facebook:

Just a thought, but last year's paralysing Britten overkill was largely driven by some major elements in the British musical establishment, in particular a publisher. Britten has many under-performed major works and over 3 decades of copyright left to run. Strauss, on the other hand, is very solidly established in the repertoire and just 5 years of copyright to go. Simple cost/benefit calculation?
Mark Berry said…
I suspect there's a good deal in that. Britten's 'official' near-sanctity and ubiquity undoubtedly have a great deal of powerful support and investment - in more than one sense. The Strauss situation also seems very plausible. For instance, there's some sort of collected edition - I'm not sure of the details - planned to begin publication when copyright expires. There seems every reason to think that performance and other related issues might be affected by publishers' relative lack of aggressive promotion. A pity, since the Strauss that has been performed has, with a few exceptions (e.g., a wonderful Macbeth from the LSO and Elder), been drearily predictable. If the Proms, with its relative freedom from commercial constraints, insists on programming only the three most performed operas, what hope is there for a Guntram, a Feuersnot, a Friedenstag, a Liebe der Danae, etc., from elsewhere?

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